In the last issue of New York Review of Books Russell Baker writes about the “blight [that] has finished off several highly respectable papers, left many others palsied and witless, and reduced print journalism, once a vital element of American popular culture, to the verge of ruin.” The same problems afflict Jewish newspapers too.
Why did it happen? The short answer is the Internet, but as Baker points out, “the industry-wide failure of entrepreneurial daring and imagination is too rarely mentioned, but such complacency was extensive in newspaper board rooms and probably contributed generously to the ruin.”
Among Jewish media outlets there have recently been encouraging signs of entrepreneurial imagination, sometimes with promising results. Over the past couple of years the Los Angeles Jewish Journal has added video features and a lot of blogs to its website (disclosure: I write one of them). As a result it has become the most-visited Jewish website outside Israel with over 400,000 unique visitors each month. It has also announced a new business plan that includes a new source of revenue: a membership/subscription that offers benefits beyond the paper, which is distributed free.
At the same time, the New York Jewish Week has quietly launched a premium membership option online. Meanwhile the Forward has made a front-page announcement that “alongside such respected journalistic entities as NPR and ProPublica” it is becoming a membership organization, and is kicking off its fund-raising with a reception in November and a gala event in March.
Using membership the basis of their relationships with subscribers has been a durable success with periodicals. National Geographic was one of the earliest; the magazine is technically a benefit of membership in its parent organization, the National Geographic Society. In order to receive Opera News you have to join the Metropolitan Opera Guild. Now a few Jewish newspapers are beginning to recognize that they too are more like public-service organizations than for-profit companies, and their relationships with their readers are the key to their future.
These are still the exceptions, however. Most Jewish newspapers, when asked how they are adapting to the pressures of today’s media environment, talk about their print editions and content strategies rather than about building relationships with their target audiences. One current idea is to pool resources on seasonal supplements – special sections for the High Holidays, Passover, weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, education, and so forth. Another is to distribute free copies of the newspaper in targeted ZIP codes to attract more long-term readers. These are time-honored strategies, but for a business model that is nearing the end of its lifespan.
Many newspapers are also relatively unsophisticated in their use of the Internet. Often their websites have little content apart from what they print; many are updated only infrequently. A surprising number of their executives are confused about the difference between a platform and a website: they reject proposals for a common platform (i.e., shared infrastructure) because they think it involves merging into a shared web address. They see their operating environment through lenses that no longer bring the picture into clear focus.
This is understandable. Budgets are so tight at most Jewish newspapers these days that their management has little time for long-range planning. It wasn’t always this way – as recently as 15 years ago many Jewish weeklies were profitable and publishers could think about the big picture. For all but a few, however, that time is now past as they are expected to put out the same product with less staff and less money.
Meanwhile, temporizing measures will have little effect other than to distract management from the larger issues. From a business perspective, most papers are in a downward spiral that only a miracle could reverse. This is not because there is less demand or need for the service they perform, but because of changes beyond their control in their operating environment. Few of them outside New York and Los Angeles are equipped to sustain their current business model for many more years.
It is not too soon to think about what will replace them and the services they provide. The answers will depend on the future role of media in the American Jewish community, the economics of the media business, and the evolution of journalism. Those questions will be the subject of the second installment in this series.
Bob Goldfarb, a Harvard MBA with decades of experience as a media executive and consultant, is the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity. He lives in Jerusalem.